David Mark Cohen, who came to The University of Texas at Austin in 1990 served as head of the Playwriting Program and brought with him an avid love for the creation of new work, which today is a core value of the department. He was heavily involved with the founding of the Michener Center for Writers, acted as Theatre and Dance Graduate Advisor from 1992 to 1994, and helped lead the department as Associate Chair from 1995 until a heartbreaking car accident took his life in 1997.
In response to his death, family, friends and members of The University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance established the David Mark Cohen Memorial Production Endowment in Playwriting to provide funds for the development and production of new work by student playwrights. Two years later, Suzan Zeder, who followed Cohen as Head of Playwriting, lead a coalition of students, faculty, and artists from the Austin community to dream up plans for a festival to honor his memory that would showcase and celebrate student work.
Inaugurated in 2001 as a new play festival, The Cohen New Works Festival has evolved from a six–week presentation of two dozen plays, dance works and readings produced in the spare time of students and faculty to a fully–mounted biennial celebration of all mediums of student–generated new work. It is the largest festival of its kind, run and organized entirely by a committee of graduate and undergraduate students, with the support of faculty co–producers.
In 2003 the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance took bold action and decided to integrate classes into the 10–day festival and to incorporate class work, discussion, and reflection into festival activities. Almost 5,000 people attended festival events. Guest artists invited from across the nation provided responses to student work and shared their expertise in master classes. Nightswim written by MFA in Playwriting alumnus, Steve Moore, caught the eye of Scott Kanoff, then artistic director of the State Theater. Kanoff decided then and there to produce the play in his season the following year.
The University Co–op became the major underwriter of the festival in 2005, allowing all events to be free. The 2005 festival featured 70 performances of 28 projects. Fifteen guest artists brought their wisdom and professional experience as respondents to student work and contributed their talents as guest directors, dramaturgs, visual artists, designers and performers into collaborative ventures with graduate and undergraduate students.